In my recent blog post, When is a C Good Enough?, I discussed being more explicit regarding what “excellence” means when looking at a student’s entire career and how a distribution of grades can still represent excellence. In response to that post, a colleague provided a very interesting insight regarding introductory courses that I would like to expand on in this post. The core observation was that in their introductory course, the differences between A, B, and C’s are actually quite small. Additionally, the main goal of the course is to master a core set of material well enough that students can be successful in later courses. This has an interesting implication for my discussion of “good enough”.
To provide some additional context, the key observation was that, in this particular introductory course, there was content that just “had to be learned” and other material that was useful to expose introductory students to but not really critical for their later success. While we can assume that a student who received an A in the course managed to master both the core and supplementary material, the receiving B’s and C’s essentially had an unknown mixture of understanding of the critical topics and the less-critical topics. In fact, a student could pass the course but miss much of the critical material! Given this, my colleague asked: How does the idea of a “C being good enough” apply to this situation when a C could involve missing critical information? I believe the answer to this question goes to the heart of the purpose of many (not all) introductory courses versus other courses.
As you may recall, one reason I argued that a C can be good enough is that it meets the needs of a student’s educational goals. For introductory courses, I believe that my colleague correctly identified the goal of the course—preparation for future course work. However, the design of the course consisted of two categories of material: (1) core material necessary for future courses, and (2) interesting and potentially valuable, but non-critical material.
Despite these two categories, too often we declare all of the material in the course to be equally “critical,” and this leads to the grading challenge described earlier. Why do we end up treating all material as equally important? Given my past involvement in curricular discussions, I think this is because there are many different reasons to have material in a course. It may be historically interesting, aesthetically valuable, important to a subfield, and/or critical to a future course. These are all good reasons to consider material for inclusion in a course, but we need to do a better job explicitly naming the reasons for students and designing assessment approaches that reflect these differences.
I would like to suggest two approaches to assessment/grading in introductory courses that respect the idea that “good is good enough” and recognize different categories of course content. The first step for both approaches is to clearly separate the course material into the two categories outlined above: (1) need to master for later courses and (2) important to learn and ideally master at some level, but not critical to master at this point for future success.
Once this distinction is made, the next step is to decide on a grading framework that aligns with understanding these two types of material. I feel the two best options for this is either utilizing specifications grading or P/NP. I will focus on the P/NP option as I feel that it is the more radical but powerful direction to move in. This option leverages P/NP as a positive tool. My experience is that P/NP is often viewed as an “easy” option for students who are worried about getting a poor grade. This perspective often runs deep, so adopting this approach might require a culture shift, but I believe it aligns well with the goals of introductory courses. In the P/NP option, a student would have to master the material in category 1 (material for later courses) to pass the course. The material in category 2 would still be taught and possibly even graded, but it would not count towards passing the course.
What I really like about this approach is that it helps address differences in student preparation in a manner that allows students to “catch up with each other” in a meaningful way. Too often, the difference in preparation comes down to a few AP courses and material learned in high school and not inherent ability or interest in the material. When we present our introductory courses as if all content is equally important, it is hard for students to make the necessary choices to focus on what is really needed to “catch up.” By adopting a P/NP grading structure, students who need to focus more time on learning the critical material and less on the supplemental material can do so without fear of earning a “bad” grade. At the same time, the students with a background that requires less time on the critical material can spend time on the other material and not get bored. Thus, by adopting a P/NP approach to introductory courses, students will enter upper-division courses on a much more level playing field and without any incidental grade penalties.
Before I end this post, I want to touch briefly on the other grading option I mentioned earlier. Adopting specifications grading would help to distinguish between the material in category one and category two. I address this in some detail in an earlier post, but the basic idea behind specifications grading is to develop a well-designed set of specifications that allows the students to understand the relative importance of different course material. One example where this approach would be particularly valuable is for a student who realizes in the midst of the course that they do not plan to continue with this major. In this case, earning a C becomes “good enough,” and having a clear understanding of how they can earn a C will save the student time and effort and ensure they do not risk failing the course. Aside from this example, I think adopting a specifications grading approach could also achieve the goals of the P/NP approach, but it would take careful consideration.
In summary, the general theme of what is good enough is important to consider and understand in many different contexts. At the end of the day, the challenge for us as instructors is to reflect on our courses and to ask the hard questions. Why do the different aspects of our course exist? What is the purpose of our course? How will our course impact a student’s next courses or future in general? How do the elements of our course interact with each other? What level of mastery do students need to achieve in the different elements of the course?
The temptation to declare all aspects of the course “critical” always exists, and our grading schemes often reflect this. However, we must acknowledge that our grading/assessment would serve students much better with careful consideration of these issues and a restructure of our grading system to align with more nuanced learning objectives.